As you know if you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, I own both a Mac and a PC. I’ve been a PC user since MS-DOS-only machines. Two years ago I switched to a Mac after having to do three complete disk wipes + reinstalls on my Windows machines (two desktops and a laptop) in the space of six months. I continue to own both systems, and am often astounded at the lack of business thinking people betray when they shrilly scream their throats raw about how much more expensive it is to own a Mac than a PC. Here’s my response. I’m approaching the question like a business person and will try to show why, for me, it’s not even a close comparison.

If you’re a pure home user, my points may not apply to you. If you run your own home business, however, read this carefully.

A friend (“Murgatroid”) just posted this to Facebook: My friend wrote: Linux is cheaper than Mac…I’m gradually migrating to Ubuntu for my everyday stuff.

I was horrified at this penny-wise, pound-foolish decision. Here’s my response:

Murgatroid, if you’re looking at cost, my guess is that you consider maintaining your system to be a fun leisure activity. If not–if you think maintenance is part of your business–you need to take a good, hard look at how you value your time. Your time is not free and in an economy like this, spending it networking, establishing a reputation, getting your name out there, and doing billable work is far, far more valuable than using your time to save a few hundred dollars on a computer.

I find “cost of computer” discussions to be void of business logic. You’ll use a computer for 3+ years (if not, you’re buying a toy, not a business device), and for many of us, it’s our #1 most important work tool (with our phone a close second). Over three years, you’re probably paying about 66% less per day for your computer than you pay for your cell phone or cable TV, even if you have a top-of-the-line computer.

“Ok,” you say, “but what about the price difference between PCs and Macs? PCs are still cheaper than Macs.” Although a case can be made that Macs and PCs are comparable when you factor in the configuration and performance details, let’s pretend a  Mac costs $500 more than an equivalent PC. Fine. Over 3 years, that’s 45 cents/day. If you save a single day of your time in increased productivity or decreased maintenance costs over that entire three years, you’ve more than made up the difference.

I’m sure Ubuntu is a great choice for you. Not being a techie, I have found most of the free software to be incomprehensible when it comes to installation. I never get to the point of being able to try it because the learning curve just to find and install it defeats me much of the time.

Download these 16 different subsystems from 9 different open source archives. Make sure to use “uhbykgu -gye” to install them and not “uhbykgu -gyf” as you normally would. If you’re using the Glorp CC#% compiler, try using “-ggg” to enable the advanced infrastructure option, but only if you have a ZZTOP 234/8 Motherboard.”

In short: if you factor in the cost of my time, the cost of ongoing maintenance, and the learning curve of open source, for me, it’s a no brainer that the Mac is the best business decision by a wide margin.

A random price breakdown of factors people rarely consider.

The software bundled with the Mac alone easily makes up for a big chunk of the price difference. iPhoto, iMovie, Mail, Address Book, and iCal all come bundled on the Mac. While Windoze has a few bundled pieces of software, I haven’t found them as functional or speedy as the Mac applications. For my main productivity apps, Mail, Address Book, and iCal, there’s simply no comparison. You’d need to buy Outlook or Office to get that functionality on Windows.

To get the full Office equivalent on the Mac does require a separate purchase. A five-seat license of iWork ’09 (so you can run it on all your family Macs) is $99. One copy of MS Office for Windows is $379.95 for a one-seat license of the standard edition. I’ve used the iWork applications for two years now and once over the initial learning curve, I can produce everything I can with Office, only typically it’s faster and looks prettier.

Upgrades are cheaper. Apple users bitch about paying $100 for an upgrade to the Mac OS. A first-time purchase of an iWork family license is 25% cheaper than a single-user upgrade for Office. If you ever plan to upgrade, your Windoze is racking up $$ much faster than your Mac.

Software updates are smoother. If you’ve followed me on Twitter, you know I’ve twice had Microsoft Update apply some critical update and destroy chunks of my system. I’ve never had that happen with Apple. It doesn’t mean it won’t someday, but the Microsoft updates seem to do it once a year or so. Walking in to a busy workday to discover my computer needs 3 hours of maintenance to recover from a security update is not fun.

There’s far, far less maintenance. I once had brief responsibility for administering a network at my first job, and I got in the habit of keeping logs of all computer downtime, the reason, etc. Even my one remaining Windows machine–on which I install no new software, I spend more clock time each month doing maintenance activities of some sort than I’ve spent in two years on my two Macs. There’s simply no comparison. (“What do you mean disk space is low? I don’t use this machine and I cleaned up disk space a month ago? Oh. Poking around, I see the Windows Update patch installer has gradually accumulated 5Gb of installer files. Are these safe to delete? … research, research, experiment, experiment, pull hair out …”)

For enterprises, the math may be different. If you have to remotely administer a gazillion machines, maybe it really does make sense to use Microsoft enterprise-wide management tools. But that’s if you look at the cost of maintenance as hours-of-IT-staff-time only. If you factor in user downtime, user frustration, mysterious lost files, etc., your total enterprise-wide cost to own those Windoze machines still may be comparable.

Geeks are different.

Some people loudly cry, “But I just do the maintenance myself!!” Yeah, yeah, yeah. And your opinion is irrelevant to the other 99% of the population. If you happen to consider maintaining your Windoze or Ubuntu to be leisure activity, then that’s fine. But don’t pretend that your situation compares to those of us who want nothing more than to leave our computers on a desert island forever so we can get on with our lives.

People who have to pay for maintenance typically pay $80 for a program installation and rates that go up from there for anything serious. That doesn’t include the expense of shipping or driving their computer to the repair place and being without it for days while they diagnose and fix.

And that doesn’t even begin to account for their time. Because for most of us, fixing our computer does not bring time, money, or happiness to us. That means it’s an expense, pure and simple. Time I spend recovering from Windows Update is time I’m not doing work that would bring me income, or playing with things that would bring me happiness. If you’re self-employed, unless what you do is extremely low-wage, it’s almost never a good business decision to fix your own computer if it will take more than an hour or two to diagnose and fix, even if you’re capable of it. Over my 10+ years of Windows ownership, I gradually noticed that most of the time, any problem that took more than two hours to track down and fix would ultimately take days. I adopted a new policy: if I can’t find and fix it in two hours, I simply bite the bullet, wipe the hard drive, and spend the 12 hours it typically takes to reinstall, reactivate, and reconfigure my Windoze. Yes, it takes out a day (thus sucking up enough lost productivity to pay for multiple Macs), but at least it doesn’t take out a week, which is what it used to take with Windoze.

In short: for me as a business user, the Mac is cheaper. The software is much cheaper. The upgrades to the software are cheaper. Plus, the saved maintenance time is super-low.

Don’t use price to choose a computer!

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